Joni and I got our first biomorph plasty together when we were sixteen. Small changes at first. Cosmetic over functional. Mom and Dad argued constantly, so I didn’t feel too badly that I was probably the final wedge to drive them apart.
Dad supported me. He went on about how when he was young, kids claimed ownership of their bodies with tattoos and piercings. He said it was my body, so I could do what I wanted. That’s how Joni felt too, even though her mom thought she’d regret it. I think by then, Joni was angry enough that one more fight with her mom didn’t matter. She wanted to prove how serious she was instead of rehashing the same argument. A lot of the other kids were getting scales or fur or snouts. We both got our eyes done.
• • •
Creatures were dying faster than we could catalog when one of the seniors came to school with a rhino horn. We’d all oohed and ahhed and begged to touch it. He warned us about the dangers, but all we heard was the defiance. The last rhino had died a year earlier. An Endling. There’d been plenty of regret, talk of doing better, but it was too late. That’s us. Our whole generation defined by too little, too late. The biomorphing gives us an outlet. It’s grief-punk. A way to maybe save the last of the last—and ourselves.
• • •
After Joni came home with owl eyes that could no longer cry, no longer roll at her mother in exasperation, suddenly her mom was paying attention. My mom still didn’t get it. She’d found another family by then and was about to leave us. I was just glad the fighting would stop. I guess I was sad for the mom I’d wanted, but never had. I think she was sad for the daughter she’d always wanted, but that I couldn’t be. I didn’t want bouncy hair or designer clothes. I didn’t care about boys or gossip. I wanted Joni and a future for us to live in.
“But why an owl? They’re so ugly, Samantha. Life is hard enough without being ugly.”
Adults aren’t supposed to say those things, right? Pretty girls get ahead. Nobody likes a troublemaker. A winning smile is a woman’s best asset. She was always life coaching me like I was a client. I hated it.
“They mean death,” I’d answered. I’d felt some satisfaction in the recoil she couldn’t contain.
“But you don’t want to die, do you?”
I tried again. “Think of it like atonement. For your sins. You know, sins of the father, four generations or whatever.”
Two lines deepened between her eyes. She’d begun to wrinkle. “So, you’re punishing yourself? Punishing me?”
“No, Mom. Atonement. It’s not the same thing.”
Her wrinkles grew shadows. “It’s not?”
She moved out a month later. She sent me pics of her new step-daughter, Cassie. She’s very pretty and swims on a team. I sent back that she’d make a fine trout. Mom didn’t reply.
• • •
Dad and I talked about the risk before I had the bones done.
“You know you’re my Endling,” he’d said.
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“No, don’t be sorry.” He shook his head and turned his face from mine. “You aren’t the first to try drastic ways to change the world for the better. I just hope you aren’t the last.”
“It’s going to be OK,” I’d said. It was an echo of the lie he’d often repeated to me as I was growing up.
He nodded in recognition and did what I had always done. Let it slide.
• • •
The bone plasty was the biggest step with the deepest risk. Joni and I took turns. I went first, and she helped Dad nurse me through the six-month recovery period. When it was finished, I’d felt like an astronaut on the moon. I kept joking I’d float away if someone didn’t tie me down. Joni would squeeze me tightly and promise to keep me grounded until we could fly away together. When Dad hugged me, I could feel him searching through my thick feathers to find the girl he once knew. Even though my grafts felt rubbery, he never flinched away.
Then, it was Joni’s turn. By then, her mother was more than paying attention—she was leading the charge. She’d been recording Joni’s changes on her channel and trying to get a sponsor for a media tour. The trick was in balancing the message between awareness and hope. She’d been contacted by two wildlife refuges, but so far no one was willing to go as far as we were with risk. They all still had corporate donors and fine print that harmed more than it helped. It was frustrating. We were giving up so much, and nothing was changing.
“Maybe that’s why they call it grassroots,” I’d joked.
Joni laughed, “Right? It’s so slow.”
Her mom squeezed her hand. “Yeah, but eventually it gets too big to ignore.”
• • •
Joni died on the table.
Her biomorpher said it was a fast-rejection of the plasty cells. He’d seen it once before, but never so quick. She went into shock and never recovered.
“Like the salmon in Lake Mead,” I’d whispered.
Dad says grief does strange things to people. He says I can’t fault Joni’s mom for not wanting to see me right now. That I’m a reminder of what she’s lost. Which was our point. Why is it so easy to grieve one but not the save the whole?
Joni would never have wanted to be embalmed and put in the dirt. She wanted to fly.
• • •
I know Dad heard me sneak out, but he didn’t stop me. The media is covering the funeral. Joni’s death is sensational where her life wasn’t, just like an Endling’s. All the biomorphed kids in our horns, feathers, elytra, and hides will be there. Ugly activists causing trouble. My mother will be horrified.
Copyright © 2023 Julie Reeser
Julie Reeser is the author of three poetry chapbooks and the novella Language of the Spirit. Her short fiction can be found in The Dread Machine, Bourbon Penn, and others. Her Patreon churns out small quirks and weekly words, and she’s obsessed with discovering comfortable seating and the best verbs. There’s a cool carousel of stories you can ride on her website — www.persephoneknits.com. She is disabled, but not done.